Back in the day, families would often have in their living room a glass-doored cabinet with airport gift shop bric-a-brac: windmills from Holland, pointy-hatted miniatures of Thai dancers, spear-carrying wannabe Masai Mara figurines from Kenya, and so on. Prakash Jha’s “Raajneeti” is the cinematic equivalent of that cabinet. I’m not sure exactly which get-wet-in-the-rain sequence inspired the first romantic moment in “Raajneeti” but my vote is for “Raja Hindustani” (shared points: rich daddy’s little girl wearing white salwar kameez, getting drenched and wooing underprivileged man). A combination of “Dil Chahta Hai” and “Coyote Ugly” shows up in a random nightclub sequence that’s like a bit from another film that lost its way into this one during the editing process. But these are the souvenirs from the not so important trips.
Occupying pride of place in the cabinet called “Raajneeti” is the Mahabharat, and not just in terms of characters like Kunti, Karna, Krishna and Dhritarashtra. Judging from lines like “Tum mere jeshtth putra ho” (for non-Hindi speakers, that’s like saying “Thou art my firstborn” instead of “You’re my son”), Prakash Jha has also copied some of the dialogues from the teleserial version of the epic. And, of course there’s “Godfather“. Francis Ford Coppola made “Godfather” in 1972 and Bollywood has been remaking it with the industriousness of Santa’s elves ever since. “Raajneeti” is the latest version and, unlike Mario Puzo’s original novel or Coppola’s film, there’s no insight to be gained. Jha informs us of the following through “Raajneeti”: Dalits have it rough; policemen are corrupt; women try to weasel their way up rungs of power using sex; politicians are crooked, and elections are all about the money, honey. Aside from the fact that the story is told through characters that are either clichéd or caricaturish, surely we all know this stuff already? We’ve read about it in the media and in books, seen it on news channels and movies and Jha hasn’t come up with anything even remotely novel as far as either plot or insight go.
Here’s the story in brief: Two brothers rule the roost in UP. The elder brother is the leader and his son is Manoj Bajpayee (laughable), who has to be the only UP politician to never be seen without a cravat. The younger brother, who is the party’s strategist, has two sons: Ranbir Kapoor (so-so), bespectacled because he’s getting a PhD on Victorian poetry, and Arjun Rampal (also so-so), who goes for political rallies dressed like a Millionaire model. The leader has a stroke and the struggle for power begins. At first, it’s only invectives and close-ups that let us know whose facial hair is stuck on. Then Kapoor and Rampal’s father is killed. Corrupt policemen harass the two brothers and with the help of his uncle (an excellent Nana Patekar), Kapoor goes about destroying Bajpayee and Ajay Devgn (who, by the way, is Kapoor and Rampal’s half brother and whose performance is blah). Despite the central role occupied by Katrina Kaif in her Sonia G-look in “Raajneeti” posters, she is essentially the human equivalent of a volleyball bounced between different men in the movie. Speaking of posters, you might be wondering about the absence of Naseeruddin Shah in this summary. He’s only there to prove that he can smooch a girl more convincingly than Kapoor.
Now, quite obviously, you’re supposed to be sympathetic towards Ranbir Kapoor and gang. Not only did Kapoor lose his dad, but that side of the family has all the cute, fair people. In fact, I’m willing to bet “Raajneeti”‘s writers, Prakash Jha and Anjum Rajabali, saw their script as an example of how this terrible world of politics withers innocence. But consider this: Bajpayee and Devgn organise one murder while the pretty boys of the film have to their credit about six. Bajpayee wants to run the political party that he believes he’s inherited and Devgn wants Dalit representation. Nothing particularly objectionable, is it? Rampal, on the other hand, is an arrogant twerp and Kapoor doesn’t care much about politics until his ego takes a punch. What you end up seeing over the course of “Raajneeti” is how state politics is actually like a Nintendo game. It’s not even remotely about the electorate; it’s about getting the top score. Katrina Kaif’s speech near the end of the film sums it up neatly. She comes to the microphone at a public rally and accuses the public of not reacting at the various misfortunes that have struck her. There are no populist slogans like “Roti, kapda, makaan”. Kaif’s speech just shamelessly hollers “Me me me!” instead of focussing on the needs of the electorate (even if it is only at a rhetorical level). Except, why should one family’s squabbles matter to an impoverished population riddled with caste violence, honor killings, police harassment, dowry violence and other woes? Did Jha and Rajabali intend to show their heroes as self-centred, egoistical, conniving bastards? I’d like to believe these writers are capable of creating complexities except, if they are, then why does most of the storytelling have all the subtlety of a battering ram? About halfway into the first half, I began wondering whether the writers of “Raajneeti” had any idea what their writing was actually communicating while the dialogues and hamming reduced the audience to giggles (at emotional climaxes, no less). I suspect they didn’t have the foggiest.